Monday, 6 October 2008

The continued threat to nursery schools

As I have written previously, despite the huge increase in funding for early childhood services in England, more nursery schools have closed in the last decade than any other. Yet nursery schools have the best outcomes for children according to the EPPE research project, and more nursery schools are judged outstanding by Ofsted than any other sector of the school system.

The Conservatives are currently mulling over the idea that Children's Centres should only provide outreach services. Since most nursery schools are now Children's Centres, that would mean the end of the nursery school as a distinct form of early education for children in the English tradition.

Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Children - Beverley Hughes - has written the strangest letter to the Campaign for Nursery Education. Asked what she plans to do, in order to safeguard the nursery school from the currently accelerating programme of closures, she replies that the government is unable to intervene. Even more oddly, she continues that she plans to equalise funding across different types of early years provision and is determined to develop a "vibrant childcare market".

Three comments on this.

Firstly government can intervene - there had previously been a declaration (with admittedly little impact) that there should be a presumption against the closure of nursery schools. Wouldn't it be more honest to say that government can intervene but chooses not to.

Secondly it would be fine to level funding across the early years system, if this led to a Swedish-style system in which each setting has adequate funding to employ highly qualified staff. But as there are no plans to increase early years funding to this extent, one can only assume that the high levels of funding that enable nursery schools to employ qualified teachers and headteachers are vulnerable. It is the employment of high-quality staff in nursery schools that leads to a high quality of education and care.

Strange to reply to a letter expressing concern about the closure of nursery schools by saying that you plan a course of action that will cut their funding.

But the third point is, I think, the most important. Early education and care is not a commodity: having a vibrant market does nothing for children.

[You can read the full text of the letter here.]